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The Impact of Alcohol Consumption During Menopause Transition

Many women enjoy an alcoholic drink—such as beer, wine or spirits—now and then. Drinking alcohol can be social, pleasurable, and relaxing. Indeed, many women at midlife have also received the (somewhat incorrect) message that they should drink red wine regularly, as it's "good for the heart."

At the same time, emerging evidence suggests that women would benefit from capping things off at moderate consumption... and probably even less. Moderate alcohol consumption for women according to the Canada's Guidance on Alcohol and Health, is one to two drinks a week. Yet, even this recommendation is being called into question, with new studies suggesting that alcohol can have a wide-ranging health effects even at low levels, including neurotoxicity. Moderate alcohol consumption may increase some people's risks of neurodegeneration, such as progressive damage to brain tissues.

Alcohol is also linked to different types of cancer, such as breast cancer and digestive cancers (i.e. esophageal, cancers, gastric cancers, colorectal cancers).

So, should you dump the rosé?

Well, there are a lot of factors to consider...

Genetics, body size, overall liver health, other medications, a previous history of drinking—and of course, age and sex—all affect how her body metabolizes (processes) alcohol. (Interesting fact: Alcohol can have a range of effects on sex hormones too).

That said, recent research has raised some significant concerns about women's alcohol consumption. Women at midlife and older are drinking much more on average than previous generations (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) and having more health problems as a result—including alcohol related emergency room visits. Plus, higher alcohol intake is associated with many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, various types of cancer, and low bone density.

Then there's the fact that alcohol use can mask—and eventually worsen—other life challenges, such as stress and depression. And women are more likely than men to relapse to drinking alcohol in response to stress.

Aside from this general research, there are plenty of reasons you may want to consider drinking less if you're going through the menopause transition (peri-menopause, menopause or post menopause):

1. Alcohol intake may worsen some menopause symptoms and concerns

Alcohol may affect the vasomotor regulation that leads to hot flushes, which means drinking more may mean you experience more hot flushes.

2. Alcohol may interfere with sleep quality

Sleep quality is often reduced when experiencing the menopause transition. Adding alcohol may exacerbate the already sleepless nights you're experiencing in this stage of life and sleep is the most critical component of our overall health and well-being.

3. Alcohol affects fluid balance in the body

You may notice bloating, water retention, and "puffiness" when drinking because alcohol acts on the hormones that regulate sodium and water balance.

4. Alcohol may affect your recovery from exercise

This is a particular concern for active and athletic women at midlife, as recovery and repair is already slowing.

5. Alcohol adds calories that are stored for energy, but with no nutritional benefit

This can be especially tru of alcoholic beverages specifically marketed to women, such as sugary bottled drinks, coolers, and mixed drinks. Layer in the fact that when we drink we tend to make less optimal nutritional choices, which means you may take in more energy than your body needs when alcohol is in the mix.

How do you determine whether or not alcohol consumption is something you would like to change?

1. Observe yourself and choose what matters to you

Perhaps an evening cocktail with your partner as you make dinner together is worth more in terms of quality of life than a hypothetical future of illness—or vice versa. If you're an active who loves wine, you may decide that you like a good night's sleep and feeling fresh for a morning workout even more than a good glass of pinot noir. Or, maybe you organize your training schedule so that you can enjoy a Friday night glass with friends.

2. Consider options such as drinking less but "better"

Are you open to drinking less often while choosing options that feel special and enjoyable, such as wine you truly enjoy or a Scotch you'll savour, instead of swigging back cheap drinks you don't really love?

3. Consider alternative stress management options outside of alcohol

If alcohol is your go to when stress is high, what alternatives would you be open to in order to manage stress in a more productive way with self-care, such as:

  • Deep, slow breathing to decrease anxiety, increase relaxation and positive energy, and improved emotional control

  • Performing mindfulness meditation by paying attention to the bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, and (in particular) the breath, which can rewire our brain and improve our ability to reduce stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, as well as improve mental health and cognitive performance

  • Finding 5-10 minutes a day to engage in a relaxing activity you enjoy to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, switching you from "stress mode" to the calming "rest and digest" mode so your body can tackle the recovery and maintenance activities required to keep you healthy

  • Finding a flow state from physical or psychological activity that makes you feel as if time stops or slows down, where nothing else interferes or matters. This can include activities such as playing a sport, running, weightlifting, cooking, writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument, knitting, and so on

  • Developing a daily stress management plan that reduces the amount of energy you exhaust on small tasks that don't need to be difficult. Some possible items to include in your plan to create some micro stress management habits would be to:

    • Setting up the coffee maker the night before

    • Selecting your workout clothes and work outfit before bed

    • Packing you gym bag for a week at a time so you're not scrambling in the morning

    • Having groceries delivered

    • Scheduling two meal prep sessions per week so you have healthy food on hand and ready to eat every day

  • Committing to change the things that are negatively impacting you to most. For example:

    • Volunteering to be a part of the PTA at your child's school, but it's taking up way more time than you thought, and being on your feet all the school events is flaring up your low back pain. You need to step back for your own sake, even though you're worried about the judgment of the other moms

    • Having an overbearing family member you need to set strong and healthy boundaries with

    • Working an extremely stressful job, and it's time to look for a different opportunity that enables you to support yourself financially while also taking care of your physical and mental well-being

While these examples may seem a little extreme, if you're hanging on by a thread because of a stressful situation, a big change might be exactly what you need.

Not sure how to create a self-care plan? See my step-by-step guide to get started.

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